Brown, Mercy Lea (1871–1892) Most famous alleged VAMPIRE of America. News of the European vampire cult that leaked out to the West in the early 18th century swept on to infect the American colonies in New England, especially Connecticut and western Rhode Island. There, deaths due to highly virulent diseases such as tuberculosis, measles, and smallpox were blamed on vampirism, and bodies were exhumed and mutilated in the same fashion as had been done for centuries in the rural parts of the Balkans. The nature of infectious disease was not understood. Vampirism was an easy explanation, especially when people died of tuberculosis, a disease which literally wastes away the body.
The Mercy Brown vampire case of Rhode Island, which dates to the late 19th century, is the most famous of the vampire episodes. In the late 1800s, the George Brown family of Exeter, Rhode Island, was stricken with tuberculosis. Brown’s wife, Mary, died, followed by their daughter, Olive. Four daughters and a son remained. Four years later, Edwin, the son, became ill with consumption. He and his bride left for Colorado, where Edwin sought treatment at mineral springs. During his absence, and about two years after Edwin had shown the first signs of lung trouble, daughter Mercy became sick and died on January 18, 1892. She was 19 years old. Edwin then returned to the home of his father-in-law, Willis Himes, where his condition worsened and he became critically ill.
It is possible that Brown was aware of the SARAH TILLINGHAST vampire case of 1796. According to an article in the Providence Journal on March 19, 1892, he was besieged by people who “expressed implicit faith in the old theory that by some unexplained and unreasonable way in some part of the deceased relative’s body live flesh and blood might be found . . .” These friends and neighbors told Brown that the only way to save Edwin was to dig up the bodies of his wife and two daughters to determine if any of them still had hearts full of Blood, and to burn the heart (see BURNING) and feed Edwin the ASHES.
An article in the same newspaper on March 21, 1892, explained in detail the deﬁnition of vampires and the vampire cult, attributing its origins to the Slavic people of Russia, Poland, Bohemia, and other parts of Europe. The article went on:
How the tradition got to Rhode Island and planted itself firmly here, cannot be said. It was in existence in Connecticut and Maine 50 and 100 years ago, and the people of the South County say they got it from their ancestors, as far back in some cases as the beginning of the eighteenth century. The idea never seems to have been accepted in the northern part of the state, but every ﬁve or ten years it has cropped up in Coventry, West Greenwich, Exeter, Hopkinton, Richmond and the neighboring towns.
Brown himself had “no conﬁdence in the old-time theory,” but also received little help from the medical community. He ﬁnally acquiesced to pressure and agreed to dig up the bodies of Mary, Olive, and Mercy, in order to try to save his son.
The medical examiner, Dr. Harold Metcalf—who also did not believe in vampires—was on hand at Chestnut Hill Cemetery during the exhumations. The CORPSES of Mary and Olive were well decomposed. Mary was partially mummiﬁed and had no blood in her heart. Olive was only a skeleton with a thick growth of hair remaining. But the body of Mercy was judged by some to be in exceptionally good condition; however Metcalf said her state was natural and not exceptional. Witnesses who had been at her wake swore that her body had shifted in the COFFIN.
Brown instructed Dr. Metcalf to remove Mercy’s heart and liver. Witnesses were astonished when clotted and decomposed blood dripped from the organs, which they took to be a sure sign of vampirism, even though Metcalf assured them it was not an unusual occurrence for a nineweek-old corpse. Brown took the organs to a rock and burned them. The ashes were saved. Dr. Metcalf told Edwin to take the ashes and mix a tiny amount in medicine he’d prescribed, and drink the mixture. Edwin allegedly followed the instructions, but died soon thereafter.
Over the years, the story has grown and become embellished. It has been claimed that six or seven girls in the Brown family died before Mercy was exhumed, and they all bore “the mark of the vampire” on their throats when they died (the vampire biting victims on the throat was popularized in ﬁction).
Mercy’s grave continues to attract visitors. People report seeing a blue light or a glowing ball of light hovering over the grave, and other visitors claim they can hear a girl’s voice whisper, “Please help me, let me out.” It may be imagination, or the sighing of the wind—or perhaps the spirit of Mercy Brown still lies restless in her grave. See also NEW ENGLAND Vampires.
- Bell, Michael E. Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2001.
- Guiley, Rosemary Ellen, with J. B. Macabre. The Complete Vampire Companion. New York: Macmillan, 1994.
- Rondina, Christopher. Vampire Legends of Rhode Island. North Attleborough, Mass.: Covered Bridge Press, 1997.
From: the Encyclopedia of Vampires, Werewolves, and Other Monsters – Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley -a leading expert on the paranormal -Copyright © 2005 by Visionary Living, Inc.
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